51st State Initiative: Advocates are now looking to legislation and mutual respect to fix the urban-rural divide

51st State Initiative Map via The Burlington Record
51st State Initiative Map via The Burlington Record

From The Denver Post (Monte Whaley):

Proponents of a failed move to secede from Colorado say they will now look to the legislature for help in giving their counties more political clout.

“The issue has not gone away for us,” Phillips County Administrator Randy Schafer said. “We have no voice in how this state is run and we will still try to rectify that.”

Eleven rural Colorado counties voted Tuesday on the question of whether their commissioners should proceed with plans to create a 51st state. Phillips County was one of five counties where the non-binding measure passed.

The other four counties were Cheyenne, Kit Carson, Washington and Yuma. Together, the five counties have a total population of about 29,200.

The measure failed 58 percent to 42 percent in Weld County — population 263,691 — where the 51st state idea first gained traction. Elbert, Lincoln, Logan, Moffat and Sedgwick counties also voted against secession.

Secession critic and retired University of Northern Colorado political science Prof. Steve Mazurana said the notion of breaking up with the Centennial State is all but dead.

“Without Weld County, the efforts to secede will go nowhere, at least for the next decade,” said Mazurana.

Schafer said the 51st state movement will now look to state lawmakers, including State Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, to advance a measure in next year’s legislative session to change statewide representation. Once such proposal is the Phillips Plan which would have representatives elected by county, rather than by population.

But University of Colorado law professor Richard Collins said a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the early 1960s cemented the “one man, one vote” concept into law. Those cases will block any move to put rural counties on par with urban counties, he said.

The counties could also try to reshape the boundaries of legislative districts. But the Colorado Supreme Court said redistricting only happens every 10 years.

“So the next time they can do that is 2021,” Collins said. “These efforts are almost as hopeless as the 51st state movement and I thought that was pretty hopeless.”

State Sen. Greg Brophy — who represents many of the 51st state counties — said the counties that voted against secession were just being “pragmatic.”

“I suspect what they were saying with their vote is they liked Colorado as it is,” said Brophy, who is running for governor against incumbent Democrat John Hickenlooper. “They just want a governor to represent them.”

Hickenlooper said he recognizes the frustration of the 51st state followers.

“While voters in six counties rejected the secession plan, we understand that some rural areas still feel underrepresented and are not being heard,” Hickenlooper said. “We remain committed to listening more and working with local communities all across Colorado.”

From the Fort Collins Coloradoan (Patrick Malone):

Voters passed secession initiatives in five rural, northeastern counties, while six counties rejected them. Perhaps more important than how many counties adopted the proposal was one that didn’t — Weld, the most populous and economically influential county where secession was on the ballot.

The five counties that passed secession measures have a combined population of 29,056. Even the least populous state in the nation, Wyoming, has 563,626 residents. Counties that rejected secession have 330,119 residents combined — 263,746 of whom live in Weld.

“There’s no doubt that if Weld had voted for this (Tuesday) night, it would have been a much different story,” said Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway, an architect of the 51st-state movement. “But the voters have spoken. We need to respect the voters’ wishes and look for other avenues to have that discussion.”

The new course for the movement is already taking shape, and it doesn’t involve leaving Colorado — quite the opposite. Conway said the next step is modeled after the measure voters passed in Phillips County on Tuesday, which would add seats in the state Legislature from rural Colorado.

That’s a tall order. It would require a constitutional change in the way legislative seats are apportioned. That would require approval by voters statewide. Before it could even reach the ballot, two-thirds of the Legislature or a sufficient number of petition signatures that would require plenty of urban support is necessary.

In other words, 51st-state organizers would need help from the parts of Colorado they sought to cast off if they are to elevate their political influence…

Instead of fortifying the urge to shake loose, Conway says the secession experiment has reminded rural Coloradans of the need to embrace the rest of the state — and hope that it reciprocates.

“The word came down from the voters: We’re proud to be Coloradans, and we love our state,” he said. “There’s nobody with guns in the street. Everybody got a chance to vote, and at the end of it all, everybody respects each other, even if they don’t agree.”

More 51st State Initiative coverage here.

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